Do · Freedive · freediving

The Value of a Coach

Not many people realise that the issues they struggle with can actually get better through finding the right coaches.

Coaching costs money, so some people may hesitate to give it a try.

But one would not need continuous coaching.

The time you need a coach most is when you have a goal but you’re stuck – at a certain depth or with a certain issue – that’s the time when a coach can help you over your hurdle.

A student once asked me whether coaching is easy for me because I only go to shallow depths when I coach beginners, after all I am a 50m diver. I told him not at all. Coaching takes as much out of me as my own dives for myself, in fact way more.

When I dive for myself, I close my eyes and only care about myself, blocking out everything around me. But when I am coaching, I am fully engaging all of my senses to observe someone, to think for that person, to strategize ways to help the person overcome his or her issues and at the same time I am creating an atmosphere that the person needs to feel comfortable to make changes to his or her dive. I am plotting which is the most important feedback I must give to make the maximum improvement to the person’s next dive. I cannot be superfluous with my feedback as a student can only absorb and apply so much. Sometimes, I intentionally hide certain information so that my student won’t know what I am trying to do so that my student can achieve what I am intending him or her to do.

On top of these, I am watching out for dangers – strong currents, exhausted students, any hard objects at the bottom that my students may potentially knock their heads into. Or a discouraged student who may no longer be in the curious or playful mood that is often so needed for learning something new.

To me, doing all these, are carbon dioxide producing. They are more effortful than me closing my eyes and doing my own thing, only caring for myself and my safety.

When I tried to explain this to the student, he understood and gave me a beautiful analogy. He told me it was like a tour guide taking a group of tourists out compared to the tour guide being a tourist himself. Exactly! As a coach or instructor, one is looking out for many things, relying upon his or her years of experience, years of studying and thinking, to create an experience that is rewarding and enjoyable for another person. There is a certain responsibility upon that coach. This is different from when you are a student and you trust that the coach will take care of most things for you, including your safety and progress.

This is perhaps what you pay your coach for. To carry that responsibility for you for that dive session, someone to partner with you to help you do the thinking, diagnose your problems, provide solutions to them, and give you guidance to learn new things.

I had many coaches and instructors over the course of my freediving journey. I learned different things from each one. Each one helped me with different issues. Over time, I also learned to self-coach myself. I learned to use each dive to collect information to analyze between dives so that I can use the subsequent dive to diagnose issues or solve problems. I am grateful for my coaches who dedicated their dive sessions towards my progress, safety and enjoyment.

As a new coach, I am learning and the multi-tasking involved is still effortful and not yet second nature as it appears to be for seasoned coaches. But my wish is that with more practice and experience, I will develop greater calm, confidence and capability to guide others towards their personal goals.

To all students who had chosen me as their coach at Apnea 42, thank you for giving me that chance and honour to have been your guide. 🙂

And thank you Mark for trusting and entrusting me with your students.

Photo by Yael Eisner, taken at Freedive Utila of Mattie and me.
Do · Freedive · freediving

Is freediving dangerous? Three reasons why freediving is more than a safe sports

A recent report of death from snorkeling in Singapore caused many people to be hyper-alert and concerned about people they see freediving out in the open waters off Lazarus island. I wrote this post to emphasize how safe a sport freediving is, as freedivers are trained to avoid accidents and incidents threatening to their lives. I would even encourage people who like the ocean to sign up for an introductory freediving course to pick up some basic water skills and develop their water confidence.

Freedivers are identifiable by their big red or yellow buoys in the ocean. If you recognize us out in the waters, don’t be afraid to say “hello”! 🙂

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Photo of a freediving buoy and freedivers in the ocean by Yael Eisner.

Here are three reasons why freediving is more than a safe sports:

  1. All basic level freediving courses teach safety skills
    To earn your first level freediving certification, you must first be able to safety and rescue your buddy. The number one rule in freediving is that “you never dive alone.” In every dive, you will have a buddy who meets you as you ascend during your dive. Your instructor will teach you what you need to do to ensure your buddy’s safety and what to do in a case of emergency when your buddy is low on oxygen or has blacked out. A freediver who cannot demonstrably show that he or she can securely safety and rescue his or her buddy will not pass the course. This means that any beginner freediver already has more knowledge about how to help a person in need in the water than a person who has not taken a freediving course.

  2. You will learn knowledge about human physiology and how to understand and listen to your body
    What happens during a breath-hold? What happens to your body when you have a build-up of carbon dioxide or a drop in oxygen levels? You will learn the various stages one undergoes during a breath-hold and what happens physiologically in one’s body. You will learn to read these signals in your own body and learn how to respond to them. You will learn what signs indicate a desire for breath and that there are different stages of “air hunger” that you will go through and at which point you should end your dive. You will also learn how to observe your buddy for signs of distress and how to help him or her.

  3. You will learn water skills and how to protect yourself in open waters
    As part of the course, we also impart knowledge about water safety in open waters. Such knowledge includes developing a mindset of healthy fear and respect of the ocean, making oneself visible to boats in the sea, choosing a freediving spot that is safe, away from boat traffic, strong currents, and venomous sea creatures. When we dive on a buoy, the buoy is attached to a long rope that is hung down from it by a heavy weight and we are attached to this rope using a lanyard. This guide line ensures that the freediver does not get lost but always know his or her position in relation to the buoy, which is the starting and end point of each dive.

See the lanyard attached to the freediver. It is a safety feature that allows the diver not to get lost during the descent and ascent. Photo by Kohei Ueno.

We freedivers understand that there are risks to freediving. We more than overcompensate in our education and preparation before and during our dives to avoid these risks. In fact, any freediver who has gone through an introductory freediving course has more water safety skills and knowledge about the risks and danger of breath-hold and the ocean than those who have not taken any freediving course.

Freedivers are not daredevils. Like others who enjoy water sports like scuba diving, open water swimming, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, wake surfing, etc., we understand the risks involved in our activities. And we take precautions to ensure our safety. We have a solid education structure and a safety system to ensure that everyone who wants to experience the joy of holding their breaths underwater can do it safely without endangering their lives.

Perhaps you can join us one day for a freediving course if you would also like to experience this joy of holding your breath and learn some of these necessary water and safety skills!

Freedive · freediving

5 things you may not know about taking part in freediving depth competitions

1. It is a good way to improve your depth and test your limits.

It is a safe place to experiment and a great learning opportunity. Some people come up to one month before to train. You don’t have to do a PB during a competition. But if you’re enjoying the training so much and on a roll, why not? Some of the freedivers who take part have not yet reached their personal limits yet. And consistently and confidently increase their depth with each training! And with each day of competition!

I increased my depth from 30-50 meters after a month of regular training in Roatan in 2019. I attribute this to the safety team, many of them Master students of Tex of Freedive Utila. Day after day we trained at the competition platform supported by the safety team who were so reassuring, encouraging, strong, and kind people. Particularly for someone like me who is sensitive to the environment and can get anxious easily, this kind of positive and supportive environment often brings out the best in me.

In my first freediving competiion, I did not know yet how to surface from my dives. I looked like I was dancing with Julia Mouce Dominguez from Apnea Bali, who told me ‘I could keep my shit together for one minute’.
Photo by Kohei Ueno, 2018 Singapore Depth Championships

2. You hang out with the world’s best as friends and you can ask them for tips!

This photo shows how fun it can be. One thing special about the global freediving community is that it really doesn’t matter who you are – beginner, spectator, photographer, national or world record holder, judge or safety crew – we celebrate one another’s achievements with PB ice-creams and beers, grieve one another’s losses, and have fun together. For those who like to party, the after-party after the competition is a big event!

Group massage.
Photo by Alessia Zecchini, 2019 CMAS World Championships

3. The only pressure you have is the pressure you give yourself.

Winning or losing, hitting your target or missing it, making mistakes or feeling awesome – however your dives were like are not life and death situations. World record holder, Alexey Molchanov, who despite the mantle he carries is always chilled and relax before competitions remembers his mother, Natalia Molchanova, saying this, “Life is important, death is important, birth of the kids is important, but a competition is just a game for adults.” In the Molchanovs Wave 4 Student Manual, he said, ‘if you enjoy it as a game, something to just have fun, being part of the community, and using it as a progression marker, then that will be a good, positive reinforcement of your training.”

Photo of Alexey Molchanov with me! By me in the 2019 CMAS World Championships.
Do your best and if you get a yellow or red card, it is not a big deal!
Photo by Kohei Ueno, 2019 Singapore Depth Championships

4. You will get really good photos and videos from them.

Kohei Ueno, my favourite photographer, took this photo of me, which its black and white version, was a finalist in the Red Bull Illume 2019 for the Lifestyle Category. He explains the photograph:

This shot is an image of a freediver coming up from a competition dive… A rather intense moment where the athlete is awakened from the dark, quiet, lonely depth of space, to the bright, loud, and hectic environment of the surface above. To me, what makes this image even more special is that I’ve watched this athlete grow over the years, overcoming her own fears one step at a time, from when she could barely dive to a few meters down, to now where she’s diving to depth of over 50 meters on one breath of air.

Photo by Kohei Ueno, 2018 Singapore Depth Championships

For this video that Mark Cheung, the owner of Apnea 42, created, I told him that it was fine to include “my failures”. I performed rather poorly in this particular competition, obtaining a white, yellow (penalty incurred), and red (disqualified) card. Because I wanted people to know that sometimes competitions are great, but other times they go awry, and that’s okay. 🙂

Video by Mark Cheung, 2019 Singapore Depth Championships

5. Anyone can take part!

Perhaps the sports is still young and that we do not have sufficient prominence and funding. But right now, anyone can still participate. You can compete side by side with your favourite freediving champion like William Trubridge. And use that chance to enjoy a beach holiday. You just need to pay the competition fee. And there are many competitions to choose from from around the world.

Screenshot from the 2019 CMAS World Championship and Carribean Cup website where my picture appeared next to the William Trubridge. 🙂

This could be you!

Awaiting my turn at the competition platform.
Photo by Laura Babahekian, 2019 Caribbean Cup

This blog post was adapted from a sharing done at the Annual General Meeting of the Apnea Association of Singapore on the 28th of July 2020. Thank you Paola Seow for the invitation to share my experience!

To read more about my competition experience, check out this article I wrote and this Facebook post.

Freedive · freediving

What Three Months of Freediving in Útila Taught Me

At the beginning of the year, I spent three months on the island of Útila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. I landed on the island on the 1st of January 2020 to be a Masters student at Freedive Utila, and thereafter an Instructor trainee. Let me share what I have learned from devoting three months to the freediving practice!

Artwork by Kimberley Jackson. The different dive sites we have access to from Freedive Utila.

1 The Danger of Pressure and Expectations

I started freediving in 2017. Freediving appeals to me because it is a way to relax and get in touch with myself. Holding your breath brings your awareness to bodily sensations and your inner world. It teaches you to create your own safe space right where you are and leaves you with inexplicable feelings. I usually try to protect this sacred quiet space within me. Still, sometimes it is threatened by concerns about how others view me and my competitiveness and desire to outdo myself. 

This year was the first time I found droplets of blood in my spit after a dive. Freedivers who push their depth ­­limits are susceptible to barotrauma (injuries to tissues caused by changes in pressure). These injuries are usually avoidable when one is under no pressure to perform. But for one who is fixated on achievement, it is easy to ignore bodily signals and sensations and push past what one is ready for. 

There wasn’t a lot of blood, but having a fear of blood made even that small amount unbearable to see and imagine within me. After the particular dive, I heard a gurgling sound and had trouble taking a deep breath (taking a deep breath caused me to cough), both signs of respiratory tissue damage. People usually brush off these few drops of blood, believing that injuries are part of any sport and that all I need to do is rest. But I was concerned about what had caused this to happen because I wanted to avoid it happening again. 

On reflection of my own unique situation, I believe the reasons for my trachea/lung squeeze was owing to a conflagration of factors that were related to me being hard on myself despite being slow to adapt to the new training conditions and environment.

I was ambitious when I left home. I had goals in mind for an upcoming competition. And a training plan that, if followed rigidly, “should” lead to the results I was targeting for or so I thought. But this plan did not take into consideration that I had difficulties adapting to the new country, school, system, social environment, diet, training, and water conditions.

Moreover, I came to the island at a low point in my life, and I was depressed and lonely. This training plan did not consider that everything around me and within me, even those seemingly unrelated to freediving, took a toll on my mental state and body and affected my mental clarity, judgment, and performance.

Tex, the owner of Freedive Utila and my instructor, dives by two principles. He tells his students: 1) Listen to your body. 2) Don’t do anything that is hard. If taken seriously, these principles imply that the sport of freediving is accessible to anybody. It encourages one to stay at where one is at until one is ready to progress further. Natalia Molchanov, the world’s greatest freediver, advises in her manuals that we are not to be obsessed with numbers but be realistic about our limits. She wrote, “Never compare yourself to other freedivers. Everybody has their own way. Feel your body, listen to it. This will help you not only to dive safely but also to know and accept yourself and truly enjoy a new underwater experience.”

Over time, I learned to accept that my training plan was not going to work out. Rather than push myself to attempt an unattainable goal, I decided to use freediving once again as a therapy to bring back health and wellness to my mind, emotions, and body. I re-examined my expectations and adjusted my standards. I decided that freediving was going to work for me rather than I work for it.

Photo by Miska Kontiainen. Really liked the fact that we get to pick up some boating knowledge and skills.

2 The Fun of Curiosity and Wonder

Here at Utila, the direction of the wind and currents determines the site we go to and the available depth we have when we dive. The beauty of our dependence on weather conditions taught me the importance of flexibility in training goals and having fun. I learned that depth need not be the only measure of one’s progress. There was a lot one could work on at shallower depths other than extending one’s personal best (PB).

I watched as my friends Caspar and Yilmaz and then Miska discovered that they could hands-free equalise. Many people think it’s impossible to learn hands-free equalization because they are unwilling to take a step back and become like beginners again, especially when they can now easily Frenzel or do the Mouthfill to deeper depths. It seems almost foolish to return to the beginning, struggling to make it past a few meters of depth, with a completely new technique. But my friends with their childlike spirit of faith, exploration, and tenacity discovered that they could also perform an equalization technique that has a reputation of being “impossible to learn.” 

Is it any wonder that many discoveries are made when we have fun with nothing to prove and with all the time to lose?

We also tried diving as fast as we could, variable weight, diving to the bottom of the ocean and lying in the sand, no fins to the bottom and then kick off from the sand back up to the surface, and one-by-one following closely behind Tex through the many decks of the Halliburton Shipwreck. Yes, it was during a variable weight dive that I discovered I could Frenzel. Being dragged through a water column at such a high speed made me instinctively picked the method of equalization that was the fastest, and it seems putting my hands to my nose and rapidly firing my tongue was my body’s method of choice for this style of diving.

Each day presented different opportunities. I was experiencing the fun of freediving again.

And this I did at Freedive Utila with many amazing people. I tried so many things I didn’t try previously in my pursuit of depth. For me, pursuing depth meant fine-tuning techniques that were known to work, instead of experimenting with new and unproven techniques. I wanted to achieve the greatest progress in the shortest amount of time. However, letting that go opened my mind to what progress means.

I learned in my time at Freedive Utila to view each problem I had with curiosity rather than criticism. Since I arrived, an issue that has been bugging me was a squeaky left ear, likely a result of middle ear inflammation. One day, Caspar was practicing his Mouthfill, and he did it from the surface with full lungs. This gave me an idea, why don’t I try it too? To my surprise, with this change in equalization technique, the squeaky ear issue went away. Apparently, before switching to this method, I was equalizing a little too slowly with my intermittent hands-free equalization, causing pressure to build up on my eardrums. While this was not so much an issue with short diving sessions where I only perform a few dives, it was too much for my body for the longer dive sessions that we have here at Freedive Utila that can last up to three hours. With this new technique, my eardrums were continuously inflated and never experience the water’s pressure. Realising a constant pressure Mouthfill may actually work for me also made me open to trying noseclip diving, something I was previously resistant to.

Another problem I had that used to make me think I was not cut out for freediving was my early contractions. Probably because I am perpetually high strung, I have a naturally high baseline level of CO2 when using a breathe up that works for most people. While having contractions during diving is common and not an issue and signals the MDR is working, I wanted to know if I could delay them by awhile to increase the period of relaxation during my dive. During one of the static sessions, I decided to try a different type of breathe up that reduces the CO2 content in my body. And lo and behold, for the first time ever, I experienced a “normal” breath-hold which had distinct segments of relaxation and contraction and hypoxia. The arrival of the contractions, rather than being premature, matched the lowering level of O2 in my body more closely. And with this breath-hold, I managed to do a PB!

Hitting a PB for static after trying a new breathe up!

Ironically, progress comes easily when one is having fun.

From these experiences, I learned to listen to my body and find unique solutions to my unique problems. It is true what Natalia Molchanova said that regardless of how long one has been doing the sports, with a curious mind and open heart, it is possible to “truly enjoy a new underwater experience” with every dive.

3 The Joy of Exhale Diving

Unique to the Apnea Total System, besides the lack of depth requirements for their courses and focus on students’ experiences rather than performances, is their teaching of exhale diving in the Advanced course (equivalent to Level 2 for the other certifications). Exhale diving means diving with anything less than full lungs. The most common is the functional residual capacity (FRC) dive, which is diving with the amount of air after a passive exhale.

Being new to the Apnea Total system, I did not have much experience with exhale diving. Even the thought of it scares me. Exhale diving may not appeal to a diver who has been working on depth because exhale diving exposes the diver to higher pressures earlier, hence regressing one in meters. It does not sound attractive to train exhale dives when depth is available. But! There are many benefits to exhale diving, including being less buoyant and being able to conserve more oxygen during the most energy-consuming phase of the dive – the entry and beginning meters of a dive. 

One particular day where we were at the Shipwreck with a depth limit of 33m, I devoted that session solely to exhale diving. Usually, when the body is still warming up, the first few dives are the most uncomfortable. And on other occasions when I’ve tried exhale diving, this is usually the point where I stop, hence reinforcing my belief that exhale diving was challenging and uncomfortable. However, because I only did exhale diving in this session, I slowly realised that the dives became more and more comfortable, and I went deeper and deeper. And not only that, each dive left me with a feeling of euphoria that my full breath dives rarely gave to me.

Our body is actually more adapted to exhale diving than full breath diving. One of the triggers for the Mammalian Dive Reflex is a reduction of lung volume. When you dive on exhale, you are allowing your body to more quickly launch the mammalian dive reflex. Your body senses not just the apnea, coldness on your face, but on top of this that you have less air in your lungs, and hence it will be more conservative with oxygen usage, kicking in the MDR earlier than it would have otherwise dive on full breath. 

I experienced this strengthened conservation of oxygen viscerally and physically with my exhale dives to the same depth being much less effortful than the full breath dive. This opened my mind to trust my body more. Knowing that my body knew exactly how to adjust the knobs of its system to take into consideration the air and oxygen level in my body was mind-blowing. I did not have to worry and stress over every small change I was making to my training program or the quality or length of my breathe up and be perfectionistic over the levels of O2 or CO2 in my body. The truth is the body senses all these changes to the minuteness of detail and will respond accordingly to help me make my dive.

Photo by Yael Eisner.

Was the three months I devoted to freediving worth my time and money? It was more than worth it. Thank you Freedive Utila for the wonderful friendships and experiences. And thank you to all my islander friends who accepted me as their own and made me feel so at home.

The island has opened its doors once again beginning October 2020 after a long drawn out battle to try to keep Covid-19 out.

Do keep this little island and dive school in mind in your freediving plans!

Freedive · freediving

Reverse Packing + BTV using Mask

Archiving this Facebook note from the 13th of August, 2019

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Some people, like myself, are surprised by my rapid depth progress in the past two months. This was strongly motivated by my desire to find out how to bring my self-taught hands free equalization past the depth of 30m, which was my limit end of last year.

To overcome my limit, I started experimenting with a “hands free mouthfill”, what I prefer to call a “maskfill”, because unlike the traditional mouthfill, you do not pinch your nose but allow the mask to fill up with air along with your cheeks and throat.

The maskfill follows the same principle as the mouthfill in how you store the maximum amount of air in your cheeks and throat (but now also the mask), while you still can do it easily at a shallower depth (typically before 30 m). And thereafter, you shut the glottis and not open it again until you reach your final depth. All these while, you keep your soft palate neutral. However, different from the mouthfill, you do not apply pressure to your cheeks or use your tongue to push air into your ears. Instead, we continue using the same hands free technique of manually opening the Eustachian tubes that we first used to take us down to 30m.

Hence, in my ideal scenario, I will take my maskfill at 18m and that one fill should take me all the way down to wherever I am headed. However, being someone who gets contractions early into my dive (usually around 30-40s), I realised that I am unable to keep my glottis shut and I always lose my maskfill way before I reach my desired depth.

This problem has led to me experiment with reverse packing to continue heading downwards even after the maskfill is lost. And to my surprise, reverse packing works for me. It is what I have been using to go down to 40m and then 45m and now 50m. So what I have been doing after losing my maskfill is to take one reverse pack and then followed by one hands free equalization, and repeat this, until I reach my desired depth.

I have been increasing my depth slowly because of what I have been told about the possibility of getting squeezes at depth when we are tense and reverse pack. So I want to give my body time to adapt to a new depth before I start pulling up more air from my lungs.

Can I go deeper with this technique? I am curious to find out myself!

Yes. So what I have discovered is that hands free equalization with reverse packing as the air shift technique works for me up to 50m!

– – –

To read more about hands free (BTV/VTO) equalization, check out the following links:

Hands Free Equalization for the Beginner and the Curious: Is it Possible to Learn at all?

Lessons about Equalization: General Principles that Can help you Master any Equalization Technique

Learning to Hands Free Equalize: How I Did It and How You Can Do It too

Freedive · freediving

An Insight into BTV Equalisation

Archiving this Facebook note from the 1st of September, 2018

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Two weeks ago, I hurt and overstretched my left eardrum. As a result of this, an insight about BTV equalisation came to me. I have been attempting to return to the depths, but I noticed because of my injury, pressure is exerted unequally on my left and right eardrums. At the same depth, I felt a lot more pressure on my left than right eardrum.

It made me suspect that BTV equalisation is dependent upon a build-up of pressure for it to work. I noticed that I can only BTV where there is a certain level of pressure built up on the eardrum. So unlike Frenzel equalisation where you can do it anytime you want along the depth column, with BTV, you have to wait awhile, allowing pressure to build up, before you can equalise.

If my hypothesis is right, this is causing problems for me right now because of the state of my left eardrum, which is more pressure sensitive than the right one. Before sufficient pressure can build up in my right eardrum for btv to be applied, my left eardrum is already telling me, “That’s uncomfortable! I’m overstretched already!”

So for today’s dives, I figured out that I have to Frenzel (though it’s not my preferred method) or do mouthfills in order not to put any undue stress on my poor left eardrum. I should not allow the pressure to build up in my eardrum at all, but constantly exert a pressure against the eardrum to maintain its comfort and neutral state. Should my hypothesis be right, this abilty to control the frequency and strength of equalisation is one of the reasons why the frenzel may still be superior over the btv.

And that very good advice to equalise as often as you can only applies to the frenzel and not the BTV. Let me know what you think, especially if your BTV works differently from mine!

Update from 9 May, 2020: Today, we know BTV equalisation relies upon negative pressure, instead of positive pressure (as required by Frenzel and Mouthfill techniques). This means that we cannot be slow to BTV equalize or allow too much water pressure to be exerted on our eardrums before we equalize, or we risk middle ear inflammation from the build-up of liquid in our tissues.

– – –

To read more about hands free (BTV/VTO) equalization, check out the following links:

Hands Free Equalization for the Beginner and the Curious: Is it Possible to Learn at all?

Lessons about Equalization: General Principles that Can help you Master any Equalization Technique

Learning to Hands Free Equalize: How I Did It and How You Can Do It too

Freedive · freediving

My Hands Free Equalization Experience

Archiving this Facebook note from the 17th of September, 2017

– – –

I remember that innocent question I asked my coach two months ago towards the end of training when I saw him teaching another student about equalization, “Can I equalize by swallowing?”

It was a question asked out of desperation as I struggled with my inability to do what everyone else was doing, holding the nostrils closed with one hand, and pressurizing the nasal cavity with force from the tongue or diaphragm.

That didn’t work for me, but “swallowing” did. My coach immediately understood what I meant by swallowing and said yes! He did it by swallowing too, first equalizing the mask and then equalizing the ears.

Because it is popularly believed that only a small percentage of (lucky) people can equalize without bringing one hand to the nose, few people even consider that they might belong to this special group or dare challenge the widespread belief that people are either born with or without this ability. It’s highly unlikely one can train to become efficient at it.

But ignorant and desperate as I was to dive deeper, with or without my hand to my nose, I kept exploring and experimenting and playing around with that swallowing and yawning motion. I was training myself to be able to perform the Hands Free equalization or BTV – the voluntary opening of the Eustachian tubes.

People who can Hands Free often described it as a movement similar to swallowing or yawning. And I noticed that both involuntary movements involved the raising of the soft palate. If I were able to raise this soft palate voluntarily, perhaps I would have figured out part of the technique. I kept playing around with it, inducing the swallow and yawn until I could isolate two movements that together enabled me to produce a clicking sound in my head.

And the next step I took, encouraged by my other coach, was to find a school with instructors who were able to perform this maneuver and knew how to help me progress with it. This I found at my freediving school in Gili Air in August of 2017. For six days, I practiced freediving with my hands free. The first day, my instructor wanted me to be relaxed and free immersion down the line slowly. The second day, he asked me to add a little kick to go down with more speed, without sacrificing my relaxation. What I noticed from these previous dives was that I needed my tongue to be relaxed and not blocking my nasal cavity to not have to equalize my mask. This was a big realization to me as before this, I had subconsciously isolated my mask space through tension, causing me to continually have a tight mask that required constant equalization. When I was relaxed, I realized the mask equalized on its own, as there was an unhindered passage from the mask to the lungs.

A master student who uses the same method as me also asked me to show him how frequently I could equalize, raising my fingers to reflect each equalization I was making. I tried, and it was slow and deliberate. He showed me his frequency, raising his fingers rapidly, and I realized, I needed to be equalizing a lot more and faster. And this is what I have been practicing since then! Clicking my ears to the beat of music and just trying to make it as relaxed and fun to equalize as possible.

On my sixth and last day of diving, I went down to 20m but with the mask pressed down onto my face, and my tongue sucked up against my hard palate. I had reached my residual depth for my current level of diaphragm flexibility. That wasn’t the most comfortable experience, and I will need to work on getting comfortable at that depth and pressure. But meanwhile, I hope to work on my speed and frequency of equalization as I had to “brake” a few times during my constant weight dives to equalize.

I have not given up on learning to Frenzel, and will need this pressurizing technique when my hands free muscles are tired, (and isn’t it great to know more than one way of doing things?) so I’ve been doing diaphragmatic and tubular aerobics when I wake up each morning. One day, I’m going to combine my hands free with my Frenzel!

I just thought of sharing my personal experience with you to suggest to you the possibility of learning an alternative way of equalization! And to share a grey case of someone who was somewhere in between. I wasn’t someone who could just go down easily without pinching my nose (that’s how you identify people who can Hands Free) but one who wanted to explore that method and had some curiosity and practice with it until I could do it to a depth I wanted to achieve. So perhaps there is a way to learn how to use those Hands Free muscles, the way we once had to learn how to Frenzel, or do the Valsalva.

P.S. Special thanks to all my freediving instructors and friends, writers of freediving books and forum posts on BTV, for their advice, feedback, and insights to get me to the stage where I’m at now. 🙂

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To read more about hands free (BTV/VTO) equalization, check out the following links:

Hands Free Equalization for the Beginner and the Curious: Is it Possible to Learn at all?

Lessons about Equalization: General Principles that Can help you Master any Equalization Technique

Learning to Hands Free Equalize: How I Did It and How You Can Do It too


Freedive · freediving

Reflections post freediving competition

I started freediving two and a half years ago. And I just returned home from my third competition. At this particular competition, it was the first time I accumulated a full set of white, yellow and red cards. With this, I hope to share my experience and use it to explain some of the competition rules for other aspiring freediving athletes, who have interest to compete.

In the competition, we were given the option to do constant weight (dolphin kick allowed) or constant weight bi fins (no dolphin kick allowed). Those who did with bifins were given additional points, probably because it is more challenging to only use your legs and not your core. I know I have the tendency to use a dolphin kick when I am tired, so I decided to announce a shallower depth but with bifins so I can get my score multipled.

At the bottom, there is a tag you need to retrieve back to the surface. The tag is attached to a bottom plate. And one meter from this bottom plate is a tennis ball. As we are propelling ourselves down only by the strength of our legs and bodies, we are not allowed to touch the line except for a distance of two meters from this bottom plate (or 1 meter from the tennis ball), because we need to grab the line to help us turn and return to the surface.

This is also the case for constant weight no fins, where we are not allowed to touch the line for assistance (but okay for guidance during free fall or during surfacing), except for 2 meters from the bottom plate or 1 meter from the tennis ball. If you do pull the rope for assistance outside this candy cane zone, you will be disqualified and given a red card!

This includes not touching/pulling the line at the surface after you submerge your airways to enter the water. Touching or holding the line after your airways is submerged will be interpreted as you used the line for assistance to make your duck dive! I made this very basic and common beginner’s error for my constant weight no fins dive where I flipped over and then remove my hand from the line. John Wright taught me that I need to, “Let go and roll over,” in that order! So I disqualified myself and got a red card even before I started my dive!

As for yellow cards, I got one when I decided to turn early because I could equalise no further. This decision does not disqualify you but it penalises you and you will not get the full score.

From these, you may realised that free immersion, where you use the power of your hands and arms to propel yourself down is the discipline that has less chance of you breaking rules as related to grabbing or touching the line. It also happens to be my favourite discipline. 😉

So what does a competition dive that gives you a white card look like? I will use the Constant Weight Bifin Discipline to explain.

You show up and sign up and make your way to the competition site 45 minutes before your turn to give yourself enough time to warm up. Five minutes before your turn, you are ready at the line. You listen to the countdown and when it reaches your official time of performance (official top), you let go of the line and submerge your airways before 30 seconds is up.

You kick your legs alternatively all the way down (as you are doing CWTBF discipline, no dolphin kick at all!) to your free fall and sink and as you arrived at the bottom plate, you hold onto the line within 2 meters of the bottom plate (this is indicated by a candy cane coloured marking), you pluck out the tag and secure it to make sure it doesn’t fall out as you ascend back up kicking with your bifins.

You announced a depth that you are confident you can do based on what you have done during training and everything happened without a hitch, so you feel fresh and good (rather than hypoxic) when you surface at the top. You removed your facial equipment (whether mask or nose clip) and then you give the okay sign and you say, “I am okay,” within 15 seconds. And then you show the judges your tag.

The judges look at their stop watch and 1 minute has passed, one of them chooses the white card from their three cards and flash it to you, saying, “Congratulations, you have a white card.”

If you start practicing these technicalities (‘let go and roll over’, hanging down at the bottom calmly to reach down and pick an imaginary tag and making a clean elegant turn and then surfacing to do the three step surface protocol) right now as part of your buoy training, you will find that actually they are not too hard to adhere to!

Practice to the test! 😉

The okay sign is one step in the surface protocol.
Feel · Freedive

Competitions and Self-Compassion

When I signed up for a second time for the 2019 Singapore Depth Championship, I had in mind that I wanted to update all my AIDA personal records from last year. I wanted to show beginner freedivers like me that if they feel like competing, they can – even if they don’t have the right gear or are still fresh and new to the sports.

But things did not turned out the way I had hoped. I made multiple mistakes that penalised me in the competition. I collected a full set of white (no penalty), yellow (penalty), and red cards (disqualification) this time.

Competitions are more challenging than trainings in that there are more protocols you need to adhere to. So I had made a few mistakes here and there and did not get the maximum score possible.

Being someone who likes to overachieve and aims for perfection, this result is disappointing.

But it showed me that these are exactly the tendencies that I want to shed from my upbringing in Singapore. This fear of failure and not being good enough, working harder than I am capable of and then beating myself up after mistakes are made.

I learned that I can define success on my own terms. We live in a world where many will only celebrate a good performance and where some are quick to question an athlete having a poor season.

To me, meeting someone’s expectations of me is not my definition of success.

Success, to me, is learning how to perform under pressure before judges and an audience, even when I have performance anxiety. It is finding my own way of achieving new depths (e.g., using short fins and using a mask), even when they differ from how most people attain them. It is learning to speak lovingly to myself even when I feel I have let myself down. It is learning to move moment by moment in the water, focused on nothing more than each present moment.

Freediving in competitions, surfaced a part of me that I wished I did not have. It showed me that I can be consumed with my errors.

If you watched the videos of my dives, you will see that I have strange surface protocol when I surface from my dives. It has surprised and amused many people. After removing my facial equipment, signing the ‘ok’ sign, and then saying, ‘I’m okay,’ I declare to the judges the mistakes I made.

Why did I do this?

It was because the moment I made my errors at depth (whether it was pulling above the candy cane or a misplaced mask blocking my nostrils on my descent), it was all that I could think of the whole journey up from the bottom. For the full 1 minute of my ascent, the full 50 strokes more or less, my mind was on nothing but the mistake I made at depth. I was beating myself up the whole journey as I ascend from the depths!

When a freediver surfaces, her first expressions reveal the thoughts and emotions that have been going through her mind while diving. Time is distorted during a dive. Those few minutes of holding your breath are stretched out and time can feel much longer than it usually feels. A mindful diver enjoys each moment of her dive – the joy of freefall, the feel of water as it rushes past you, the delight of buoyancy changes – and surfaces with a big smile on her face.

Conversely, a self-reproachful diver, as I have been, has disdained for herself stretched out as well. I had no heart to enjoy my ascent, usually the favourite part of my dives. Instead, I rapidly surfaced, my mind in a distant place of disappointment, guilt and shame. It was why when I surfaced, I spouted out the regrets of my dives.

regretful smile.jpg

This is the Shuyi I had grown up to be but this is not the Shuyi I want to be.

This is my biggest lesson from this competition. That I need to unlearn many bad habits and thought patterns that have been ingrained in me. And as much as I have been working on being a more self-compassionate person, I still have a long way to go before I become a loving friend to myself and a mindful freediver and competitor.

But I am on my way. 🙂

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Check out this video where you can see me getting my three – white, yellow, and red – cards and see if you can see how I got my red card. 🙂




Feel · Freedive · Think

Containing Panic – Letting it Remain in the Minute it Arises

Three days ago, I was in my car and late for an appointment, rushing and following the GPS instructions. It told me to make a U turn which I blindly did and it took me in the wrong direction. At this point, I felt a great sense of frustration and anxiety, upset with myself that I could have made that mistake and anxious that I was going to take even longer to reach my destination.

To calm myself down, I started to breathe deeply. I took deep breaths in and long slow controlled breaths out to “contain the panic”. I needed to stop it at that moment, rather than to allow the panic to fester and escalate, and for one small mistake to lead to more mistakes. Taking those deep breaths bought me time to calm down and decide how I wanted the next moment to be. So I recovered and reasoned, if I had to be late, I would be late. And it’s better late than risky and reckless driving.

Freediving taught me that panic can be contained wherever and whenever is arises. You need not follow panic down the fight or flight spiral. But you can stop, recognize and accept it, see it reduce in its strength, and then decide how to proceed from that moment on. I learned this during my first deep descent into Singapore waters beyond 20 meters. As I went deeper and deeper with my eyes closed, there came a point where it was suddenly pitch black and I panicked and returned to the surface.

At the surface, my coaches, Sam and Chris, told me that on my next dive, when I experience that panic with the darkness, not to react and return, but to stop at that point and allow myself to accept the darkness and to relax into that space and time. And then watch my emotions change, as they often do. This way, I remain in control. I can better assess my situation and to decide my move, whether to calmly proceed or return, without panic.

Grab the line and stop when you need to and don’t follow panic’s lead.

This object lesson learned in one freediving session can be applied to other strong forms of emotional surges that we experience in life. Intense emotions have a tendency to overwhelm, to spill over, into every thought that you have, every fibre of your body, and into subsequent moments long after the initial trigger has past. It causes us to react out of fear rather than reason.

If we recognize that we have the ability to stop, recognize, calm and soothes ourselves and then decide to think and behave differently from what those initial emotions ask of us, we can retain a lot more control over our lives. In short, to accept and contain them, rather than follow their lead.

Panic may indeed be what we need in certain situations that are life threatening and we need that reaction to protect and preserve ourselves. However, for most people and for most of the time, panic is a hindrance rather than a help, causing us to lose ourselves in situations where we most need to be calm, collected, and in control.

Time can sometimes seem to be continuous with no beginning and no end, but it is also made up of unique moments that are distinct and separate from one another. And we can contain unpleasant moments and emotions to one moment and have a completely different moment the next!

Credits: Freediver photograph by Kohei Ueno and featured image by Stefano Pollio.